A few weeks ago, Matt Dilling was in the desert outside of Palm Springs, lining more than 200 craters dug into a stretch of sand larger than two football fields with neon tubes. What sounds like some sort of bizarre science experiment is actually art in the making. Dilling, the founder of Lite Brite Neon, was commissioned by artist Tavares Strachan to help build this massive creation—it will read "I Am" when viewed from above—for Desert X, a site-specific art exhibition opening on February 25. The show will run for about two months, half as long as it will have taken to bring the piece to life.
Photography: Lite Brite Neonwww.architecturaldigest.com
Even the simplest neon signs you see everywhere—DINER, OPEN, EAT—take the hands of multiple artisans to create. On an average day at Dilling's studio, located inside the historic Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn, New York, two or three people will be heating glass tubes with torches, bending them into their final shapes, while two or three more are either designing something new at a computer or handling the back end of a project—perhaps working on the wiring or hooking up the piece to animation. An injection of inert gas into the glass tubing—after it's molded but before it receives the finishing touches—creates the reaction that gives the piece that signature can't-take-your-eyes-off-it color. The process is as much of a science as it is an art; one type of inert gas plus one type of glass coating equals one specific shade (there are about 50 possible hues in total). Even so, Dilling says, "I tend to think it's quite mystical."
Hanging above the fray is Dilling's very first creation, a glowing squiggle that he fashioned in high school, when he was first introduced to neon by his sister's art history teacher. Nowadays, some projects are straightforward words or phrases, but many others require collaborating with the client to form an idea from scratch. "The medium itself is so mutable," explains Dilling. "It has so many ways that it can be manipulated and used that I think of it as a way of writing and drawing with light. It obviously also has all that cultural baggage. People tend to have a very strong reaction to it, whether they love it or hate it."
And love it they do. Lite Brite Neon counts artists like Glenn Ligon and big-name brands, such as Bergdorf Goodman, Coach, and Tiffany & Co., as loyal clients. For projects big and small, Dilling and his team always aim to push the envelope. "We're looking at things through a historic lens of what has been done before—not necessarily to keep doing that, but to work with it consciously—and, more of the time, we look at what hasn't been done," says Dilling. "In a lot of ways, neon is a very young medium; it's only been around just over a 100 years at this point. Even though people often think of it in a nostalgic way, there's so much that hasn't been done." For instance, you've most likely never thought of using neon signs to protest. "We just had someone email us who has an apartment across from Trump Tower and wants to put a big red 'Resist' sign in their window," Dilling mentions. In the true nature of neon signs, this one—perhaps more so than any other—is sure to make you stop and stare.